16.04.2013 - UNESCO Office for Iraq

International Conference on Baghdad Architectural heritage

The Gymnasium designed by Le Corbusier in Baghdad © Caecilia Pieri- Le Corbusier Foundation 2011

An international conference of architecture, taking place from 16 to 18 April 2013 at the University of Baghdad as part of the events of “Baghdad, Arab Capital of Culture for the Year 2013,” will highlight a little-known gymnasium designed by Le Corbusier for the Iraqi capital, and other projects executed by prominent international and Iraqi architects influenced by the Modern Movement.

Under the title “The Architecture of Modernity in Baghdad: From Le Corbusier to the Iraqi Pioneers,” the conference is the result of a scientific partnership between the University of Baghdad, Ifpo (the French Institute of the Near East), and the UNESCO Office for Iraq. The Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the French Embassy in Iraq have granted their generous support. The conference will offer a glimpse of the heydays of urban and architectural development in the city boosted by the oil wealth and public and private investments. Between the 1920s and the early 1980s, the authorities governing Iraq commissioned numerous remarkable public and commercial buildings. During the period of the British Mandate in the 1920s, projects were mostly carried out by architects from the UK. After the independence of the country, the Public Works Department called on Iraqi and renown international figures to endow the modern garden city with more entertainment and sports facilities, schools, apartments, office and public buildings such as the Central Train Station long considered the jewel of Baghdad for its ultra-modern facilities and Art Deco style. Iraqi pioneer architects – among them Ahmad Mukhtar, Jaafar Allawi , Rifat Chadirji, Qahtan Madfai, Mohammed Makiya, Hisham Munir, Midhat Madhloom, Qahtan Awni - gained their credentials by harmoniously blending local features and materials with innovations brought forth by the international Modern Movement.

The 1950s were particularly prolific as prominent international architects (including Gio Ponti, Werner March, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Alto) were commissioned a set of public buildings. These included the famous Iraqi National Museum with its Mesopotamian motifs integrated into a functional design. Many of these projects, however, were never executed or built decades later. This is the case with the Olympic City designed by the groundbreaking architect Le Corbusier in 1956. Of it, only the gymnasium was erected as late as the 1980s, under the supervision of one of the French Master’s associates and to the minute details provided in the initial plan. This posthumous work, still in use and well know of the Baghdadis, had until recently escaped international attention.

Overshadowed by decades of armed conflicts and isolation, and by pervasive media images of a warn-torn city, Baghdad’s outstanding architectural heritage of modernity will be celebrated in the conference. Besides casting a historical and architectural look at a series of prominent buildings, among them the gymnasium by Le Corbusier, Iraqi and international scholars and professionals will offer advice on the pressing issues of preservation and rehabilitation of the modern Iraqi built heritage, undervalued by the local public and authorities, and ignored beyond a small circle of experts.

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